DIVA TALK: A Chat With Hands on a Hardbody Star Keala Settle

By Andrew Gans
08 Mar 2013

Settle in Hands on a Hardbody.
Photo by Kevin Berne

Question: Are all the characters in the show based on real people?
Settle: There are a few of them, yes. Hunter's character is based on a real person, Keith's is based on a real person, Allison Case's is based on a real person. We've actually met them. A few of them came in La Jolla and surprised us, and we had no idea until after the show. It was intense because nobody wanted to leave. We just wanted to keep asking questions and get a feel for who they were — all that stuff.

Question: What was their reaction to seeing it as a musical?
Settle: They were bawling. I mean, you've got to understand…those were real people, and that all really existed. Unfortunately, it does follow that stereotype of Middle America or whatever you want to call it. But they were worried that [the musical would be] kind of an attack — the fact that they are this small-town place, you know — and it couldn't have been more of the opposite. For them it was not only relief, but it was their real story being told.

Question: How much has changed from out-of-town to Broadway?
Settle: A little bit's changed, and I'm sure probably in the next week or so [there will be more changes]… We all believe in this show and have from the get-go for the past two years — some of us even longer because we've been involved for even longer — and believe in the message. We knew — at least I did — I fully knew that we weren't coming to New York with Swarovski crystals on our legs. It's a story. It's literally a play with music, and we're not going to hammer it in people's heads. It's society; it's what it is. Some people can handle it, some people can't. And, that's the human condition, and that's what our show basically shows everybody is that we are living the human condition, and it's okay. [Laughs.] You don't have to be mad about it. It's just by default, that's what we do. That's who we are, whether you're in Longview, Texas, or New York City.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with the director, Neil Pepe.
Settle: It's great in the sense that not only the director, but the book writer, gives us a lot of room…a lot of space within the show to keep the competition going within each of our characters and to explore that so much more. It's a really, really open space as far as actor-wise, so everybody has a say… When you stand around on a truck for basically two years, you go nuts, so we're a big old family whether we like it or not, so with that comes all the good and all the bad of it. And, that's what's so great about it. One person can say, "I can't do that, it doesn't work," and in another breath, say, "That's probably one of the greatest ideas you ever had." It happens all the time because it never stops — that kind of work — so we have that every day, which is so great, and which is why all of us have stuck with it for so long.

Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio observe an early rehearsal in La Jolla.
photo by Terri Rippee

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character? Is there something you look forward to?
Settle: I don't know if it's for my character specifically, but it's for Hunter's character, when he sings his 11-o'clock number in the show. Right before he sings it, he goes to Norma's character and kind of questions whether there really is a God after everything his character has been through. And, it sets up, very nicely, [a big decision for his character].

Question: Did you go back and watch the movie again after you were cast?
Settle: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

Question: What was your thinking?
Settle: Because to act is not to imitate. You're not imitating. When you act, you're being. So if I were to go back and watch a movie of anything that I was doing, I would go back and go, "Well, I'm going to pretend like I'm imitating this person playing this character." I don't want to ever do that. If someone puts a character in front of me — no matter what it is, whether there has been a film or not — I want to be that character, not imitate it. There's a difference — a big difference.

Question: You mentioned before the message of the musical. What message does it have for you?
Settle: For me, I want to say whether or not you believe in God — or a universe, of any kind, that's watching over any of us — you can have faith that things will go your way as much as you want to, and they won't. When they don't, you have to know it's okay because other people at a truck, or in your community, or at your apartment are there to catch you without fail — simply because that was how we were created. No one was created to be alone. We can try as hard as we want. Even at the beginning of this show, everybody's in their own world, trying to just be at the truck [thinking], "I'm not going to pay attention to anybody." And, in the long run, they have to — simply to stay awake — stay in the contest, so whether it's a truck, whether it's a divorce — whatever the case may be — it's the same idea. It's all relative. It's just whether or not we as human beings really want to go there because that's a lot of work for us. That's a lot of acceptance and a lot of truths that some of us don't want to know about, and that's what it is. So, people can go there or they won't, but that's the beauty of it — that you get the option, especially when you just go to a show. I mean, this is, by no means, therapy or Paxil. [Laughs.] But it is an insight on the human race — and a good one in all aspects.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I was wondering where you were born and raised.
Settle: I was born and raised in Hawaii.

Question: When did you start performing?
Settle: In the bathroom when I was two. My mother couldn't shut me up!